Artists May Have Different Brains (More Grey Matter) Than the Rest of Us, According to a Recent Scientific Study

Image Photo courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA.

Sometimes—as in the case of neuroscience—scientists and researchers seem to be saying several contradictory things at once. Yes, opposing claims can both be true, given different context and levels of description. But which is it, Neuroscientists? Do we have “neuroplasticity”—the ability to change our brains, and therefore our behavior? Or are we “hard-wired” to be a certain way by innate structures.

The debate long predates the field of neuroscience. It figured prominently in the work, for example, of John Locke and other early modern theorists of cognition—which is why Locke is best known as the theorist of tabula rasa. In “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” Locke mostly denies that we are able to change much at all in adulthood.


Personality, he reasoned, is determined not by biology, but in the “cradle” by “little, almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies.” Such imprints “have very important and lasting consequences.” Sorry, parents. Not only did your kid get wait-listed for that elite preschool, but their future will also be determined by millions of sights and sounds that happened around them before they could walk.

It’s an extreme, and unscientific, contention, fascinating as it may be from a cultural standpoint. Now we have psychedelic-looking brain scans popping up in our news feeds all the time, promising to reveal the true origins of consciousness and personality. But the conclusions drawn from such research are tentative and often highly contested.

So what does science say about the eternally mysterious act of artistic creation? The abilities of artists have long seemed to us godlike, drawn from supernatural sources, or channeled from other dimensions. Many neuroscientists, you may not be surprised to hear, believe that such abilities reside in the brain. Moreover, some think that artists’ brains are superior to those of mediocre ability.

Or at least that artists’ brains have more gray and white matter than “right-brained” thinkers in the areas of “visual perception, spatial navigation and fine motor skills.” So writes Katherine Brooks in a Huffington Post summary of “Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing.” The 2014 study, published at NeuroImage, involved a very small sampling of graduate students, 21 of whom were artists, 23 of whom were not. All 44 students were asked to complete drawing tasks, which were then scored and compared to images of their brain taken by a method called “voxel-based morphometry.”

“The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” the study’s lead author, Rebecca Chamberlain of Belgium’s KU Leuven University, told the BBC. (Hear her segment on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science here.) Does this mean, as Artnet News claims in their quick take, that “artists’ brains are more fully developed?”

It’s a juicy headline, but the findings of this limited study, while “intriguing,” are “far from conclusive.” Nonetheless, it marks an important first step. “No studies” thus far, Chamberlain says, “have assessed the structural differences associated with representational skills in visual arts.” Would a dozen such studies resolve questions about causality--nature or nurture? As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in-between.

At Smithsonian, Randy Rieland quotes several critics of the neuroscience of art, which has previously focused on what happens in the brain when we look at a Van Gogh or read Jane Austen. The problem with such studies, writes Philip Ball at Nature, is that they can lead to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” But such criteria may already be predetermined by culturally-conditioned responses to art.

The science is fascinating and may lead to numerous discoveries. It does not, as the Creators Project writes hyperbolically, suggest that "artists actually are different creatures from everyone else on the planet." As University of California philosopher professor Alva Noe states succinctly, one problem with making sweeping generalizations about brains that view or create art is that “there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is.”

Emerging fields of “neuroaesthetics” and “neurohumanities” may muddy the waters between quantitative and qualitative distinctions, and may not really answer questions about where art comes from and what it does to us. But then again, given enough time, they just might.

via The Creators Project

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Animations Show the Melting Arctic Sea Ice, and What the Earth Would Look Like When All of the Ice Melts

It's no secret that climate change has been taking a toll on the Arctic. But it's one thing to read about it, another thing to see it in action. Above you can watch an animation narrated by NASA's cryospheric scientist Dr. Walt Meier. Documenting changes between 1984 and 2016, the animation lets you see the Arctic sea ice shrinking. As the important perennial sea ice diminishes, the remaining ice cover "almost looks gelatinous as it pulses through the seasons." For anyone interested, an updated version of this visualization can be downloaded in HD here.

If you're curious what this could all lead to--well, you can also watch a harrowing video that models what would happen when all the ice melts and the seas rise some 216 feet. It isn't pretty. The video below is based on the 2013 National Geographic story, "What the World Would Look Like if All the Ice Melted."

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The Map of Chemistry: New Animation Summarizes the Entire Field of Chemistry in 12 Minutes.

Philosophers, technologists, and futurists spend a good deal of time obsessing about the nature of reality. Recently, no small number of such people have come together to endorse the so-called “simulation argument,” the mind-boggling, sci-fi idea that everything we experience exists as a virtual performance inside a computer system more sophisticated than we could ever imagine. It’s a scenario right out of Philip K. Dick, and one Dick believed possible. It’s also, perhaps, terminally theoretical and impossible to verify.

So... where might the perplexed turn should they want to understand the world around them? Are we doomed to experience reality—as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard thought—as nothing more than endless simulation? It's a little old-fashioned, but maybe we could ask a scientist? One like physicist, science writer, educator Dominic Walliman, whose series of short videos offer to the layperson “maps” of physics, math, and, just above, chemistry.


Walliman’s ingenious teaching tools excel in conveying a tremendous amount of complex information in a comprehensive and intelligible way. We not only get an overview of each field’s intellectual history, but we see how the various subdisciplines interact.

One of the oddities of chemistry is that it was once just as much, if not more, concerned with what isn’t. Many of the tools and techniques of modern chemistry were developed by alchemists—magicians, essentially, whom we would see as charlatans even though they included in their number such towering intellects as Isaac Newton. Walliman does not get into this strange story, interesting as it is. Instead, he begins with a prehistory of sorts, pointing out that since humans started using fire, cooking, and working with metal we have been engaging in chemistry.

Then we’re launched right into the basic building blocks—the parts of the atom and the periodic table. If, like me, you passed high school chemistry by writing a song about the elements as a final project, you may be unlikely to remember the various types of chemical bonds and may never have heard of “Van der Waals bonding.” There's an opportunity to look something up. And there's nothing wrong with being a primarily auditory or visual learner. Walliman's instruction does a real service for those who are.

Walliman moves through the basics briskly and into the differences between and uses of organic and inorganic chemistry. As the animation pulls back to reveal the full map, we see it is comprised of two halves: “rules of chemistry” and “areas of chemistry.” We do not get explanations for the extreme end of the latter category. Fields like “computational chemistry” are left unexplored, perhaps because they are too far outside Walliman's expertise. One refreshing feature of the videos on his “Domain of Science” channel is their intellectual humility.

If you’ve enjoyed the physics and mathematics videos, for example, you should check back in with their Youtube pages, where Walliman has posted lists of corrections. He has a list as well on the chemistry video page. “I endeavour to be as accurate as possible in my videos," he writes here, "but I am human and definitely don’t know everything, so there are sometimes mistakes. Also, due to the nature of my videos, there are bound to be oversimplifications." It’s an admission that, from my perspective, should inspire more, not less, confidence in his instruction. Ideally, scientists should be driven by curiosity, not vanity, though that is also an all-too-human trait. (See many more maps, experiments, instructional videos, and talks on Walliman's website.)

In the “Map of Physics,” you’ll note that we eventually reach a gaping “chasm of ignorance”—a place where no one has any idea what’s going on. Maybe this is where we reach the edges of the simulation. But most scientists, whether physicists, chemists, or mathematicians, would rather reserve judgment and keep building on what they know with some degree of certainty. You can see a full image of the “Map of Chemistry” further up, and purchase a poster version here.

Find Free Chemistry Courses in our collection, 1,250 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Wolfram’s Bestseller, A New Kind of Science, Now Free to Read/Download Online

It's been 15 years since computer scientist and physicist Stephen Wolfram published his bestselling book A New Kind of ScienceAnd now Wolfram has put his book online. It's available in its entirety, all 1,200 pages, including the superb graphics. Feel free to read the pages on the web. Or download them as PDFs.

It's also worth reading Wolfram's new blog post where, in announcing the new online edition, he revisits the intellectual contributions he made with the book.

The online edition of A New Kind of Science will be added to our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

via BoingBoing

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Huge Hands Rise Out of Venice’s Waters to Support the City Threatened by Climate Change: A Poignant New Sculpture

Upon arriving in Venice in the late 1930s, columnist and Algonquin Round Table regular Robert Benchley immediately sent a telegram back home to America: “Streets full of water. Please advise.” The line has taken its place in the canon of American humor, but in more recent times the image of water-filled streets — unintentionally water-filled streets, that is — has arisen most often in the conversation about climate change. Some of the potential disaster scenarios envision every major coastal city on Earth eventually turning into a kind of Venice, albeit a much less pleasant version thereof.

And so what better place than the one that hosts perhaps the world's best known art exhibition, the Venice Biennale, to express climate-change anxiety in the form of public sculpture? "Venice is known for its gondolas, canals, and historic bridges," writes Condé Nast Traveler's Sebastian Modak, "but visitors will now also be greeted by another, albeit temporary, reminder of the city's intimate relationship with water: a giant pair of hands reaching out of the Grand Canal and appearing to support the walls of the historic Ca' Sagredo Hotel." The piece is called Support, and it's created by Barcelona-based Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn.

"I have three children, and I'm thinking about their generation and what world we're going to pass on to them," Quinn told Mashable's Maria Gallucci. "I'm worried, I'm very worried." The hands of his 11-year-old son actually provided the model for the polyurethane-and-resin hands of Support, weighing 5,000 pounds each, that stand on 30-foot pillars at the bottom of the Grand Canal. Modak quotes one of Quinn's Instagram posts which describes the work as speaking to the people "in a clear, simple and direct way through the innocent hands of a child and it evokes a powerful message, which is that united we can make a stand to curb the climate change that affects us all."

Those arguing in favor of more aggressive political measures to counteract the effects of climate change have gone to great lengths to point out what forms those effects have so far taken. But the fact that, apart from a stretch of hot summers, few of those effects have yet manifested undeniably in most people's lives has certainly made their job harder. But nobody who visits Venice during the Biennale could fail to pause before Support, a work whose visual drama demands a reaction that temperature charts or data-filled studies can't hope to provoke by themselves. And even apart from the issue at hand, as it were, Quinn's sculpture reminds us that art, even in as deeply historical a setting as Venice, can also keep us thinking about the future.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Read Cormac McCarthy’s First Work of Non-Fiction, “The Kekulé Problem,” a Provocative Essay on the Origins of Language

Few English writers of the early twentieth century had the rhetorical zest and zeal of novelist, journalist, and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, and few could have so ably taken on the formidable intellect of H.G. Wells. Chesterton wrote one of his most influential books, The Everlasting Man, partly as a refutation of Wells’ popularization of Darwinian evolution in The Outline of History. Wells had contemporary science on his side. Chesterton, the wittier and more philosophical of the two, had on his side a healthy skepticism of pat explanations, though he would endorse his own religiously orthodox theory of everything.


We need not draw Chesterton’s conclusions to find his arguments compelling. Take, for example, the first chapter of The Everlasting Man, in which he argues that prehistoric humans were totally, inexplicably distinct from animals. Consider, he writes, the experience of an early discoverer of cave paintings: “What would be for him the simplest lesson of that strange stone picture-book? … that he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.” The explorer “might descend to depths unthinkable” and never find, nor expect to find, such a thing. “Art,” Chesterton wrote, “is the signature of man.”

Almost a hundred years later, scientists of all kinds agree with Chesterton’s aphorism: painting and sculpture distinctly made humans human. So too did something equally abstract and nowhere else in evidence in all the animal world: Language. In a new essay, another witty and perceptive novelist—though one with a much darker view—takes on evolutionary explanations of language and advances an unorthodox view, full of provocations and curious observations. Cormac McCarthy—who for much of the past two decades has written from an office at the scientific research center the Santa Fe Institute—begins his essay, “The Kekulé Problem,” with some very Chestertonian ripostes:

There are influential persons among us… who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness…. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I dont know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

No barrier of “mountains and oceans” slowed the spread of language, nowhere in any human community did it wither away for lack of use. But “did it meet some need?” McCarthy asks. “No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.” Against the linguistic consensus of “influential persons,” McCarthy claims “there is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.”

For some background on the idea of a primitive “ur-language,” see our previous post on the centuries-long quest for such a thing—as yet an elusive and wholly speculative entity that may be no more than a myth, like the story of the Tower of Babel. Does McCarthy mean to call this tale to mind? Does he, like Chesterton, pursue a line of argument that leads us back to some old-time religion? No. But “while his thoughts on the unconscious are framed as scientific reflections,” writes Nick Romeo at The New Yorker, “they also creep toward theology,” or at least a personification of impersonal forces, though McCarthy is no believer in supernatural agents.

Here, instead of a god implanting souls in humans, evolution has given us an unconscious mind, which Romeo characterizes in McCarthy’s essay as an “ancient, moral agent interested in our wellbeing and given to revealing its intentions through images.” Yet, while the soul may be the source of art in Chestertonian logic, McCarthy’s unconscious is most certainly not the source of language. “The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not… the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” not a speaking being. No, in fact, McCarthy argues, the unconscious is more-or-less at war with language, or at least in a very deep sulk about its existence.

The unconscious toys with us; it knows things we don’t, but gets very cryptic about it. (The title of the essay refers to German chemist August Kekulé's discovery of the structure the benzene molecule in a dream about a snake eating its tail.) Language is an intruder, like a virus, except "the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not."

….the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

The hand of the artist moves behind McCarthy’s scientific arguments. His essay is in large part a kind of prehistory of intuition as well as language. “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us,” he writes, and it has been doing so for much longer than humans have been marking up cave walls. Language came much later—“a hundred thousand [years] would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.” There, in a eureka moment, “some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing….”

When I think of the image of a “chap waking up in a cave” in McCarthy’s fiction, I think of the disturbing serial killer Lester Ballard in Child of God, and suspect that in the novelist's imagination the sudden appearance of language may have been a very bloody event. But while McCarthy’s novels are filled with subtle allusions to his scientific interests, the existential bleakness of his fiction doesn’t make its way into his first published work of non-fiction. The essay is, however, Romeo writes, full of the writers “folksy locutions and no-nonsense sentence fragments,” not to mention his nonstandard punctuation and lack of apostrophes. Like Chesterton, McCarthy concludes that the origin of symbolic systems of reference is a mystery. But he offers no divine solution for it.

For all his scientific perspicacity, McCarthy thinks like a writer, which gives him unique insight into some novel complications, though he may overgeneralize from the particular case of Kekulé. ("The vast majority of dreams and reveries don’t solve major problems in the history of science," cautions Steven Pinker.) McCarthy concludes that the biological system of the unconscious may be all we need to guide us through the world. But it takes language to create culture, and make humans of us: “Once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.”

Read McCarthy’s full essay---with a short, laudatory introduction by the Santa Fe Institute’s president David Krakauer---at Nautilus.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Neil deGrasse Tyson Says This Short Film on Science in America Contains Perhaps the Most Important Words He’s Ever Spoken

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has won a reputation as a genial, yet pedantic nerd, a scientific gadfly whose point of view may nearly always be technically correct, but whose mode of delivery sometimes misses the point, like someone who explains a joke. His earnestness is endearing; it’s what makes him so relatable as a science educator. He’s wholeheartedly devoted to his subject, like his boyhood hero Carl Sagan, whose shoes Tyson did his best to fill in a remake of the classic Cosmos series. Tyson's countrymen and women, however, have made his job a lot harder than they did in Sagan's day, when ordinary Americans were hungry for scientific information.

The change has been decades in the making. Like Sagan, Tyson’s voice fills with awe as he contemplates the mysteries of nature and wonders of science, and with alarm as he comments on widespread American ignorance and hostility to critical inquiry and the scientific method. These attitudes have led us to a crisis point. Elected and appointed officials at the highest levels of government deny the facts of climate change and are actively gutting all efforts to combat it. The House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology mocks climate science on social media even as NASA announces that the evidence is “unequivocal.”


How did this happen? Are we rapidly returning, as Sagan warned before his death, to an age of “superstition and darkness”? Tyson has recently addressed these questions with earnestness and urgency in a short video called “Science in America,” which you can watch above, “containing,” he wrote on Facebook, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” He opens with a statement that echoes Sagan’s dire predictions: “It seems to me that people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not.” The problem is not simply an academic one, but a pressingly political one: “When you have people,” says Tyson, “who don’t know much about science, standing in denial of it, and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”

One must ask if the issue solely comes down to education. We are frequently reminded of how much denial is motivated and willful when, for example, a government official begins a completely unsupported claim with, “I’m not a scientist, but….” We know that fossil fuel companies like Exxon have known the facts about climate change for forty years, and have hidden or misrepresented them. But the problem is even more widespread. Evolutionary biology, vaccines, GMOs… the amount of misinformation and “alternative fact” in the public sphere has drowned out the voices of scientists. “That’s not the country I remember growing up in,” Tyson laments.

There are plenty of good philosophical reasons for skepticism, such as those raised by David Hume or by critical theorists and historians who point out the ways in which scientific research has been distorted and misused for some very dark, inhumane purposes. Yet critiques of methodology, philosophy, and ethics only strengthen the scientific enterprise, which---as Tyson passionately explains---thrives on vigorous and informed debate. We cannot afford to confuse thoughtful deliberation and honest reflection with specious reasoning and willful ignorance.

I imagine we’ll have a good laugh at creative redeployments of some classic Tyson harangues. (“This is science! It’s not something to toy with!”) And a good laugh sometimes feels like all we can do to relieve the tension. The real danger is that many people will dismiss his message as “politicizing” science rather than defending the very basis of its existence. We must agree on the basis of scientific truth, as discoverable through reason and evidence, Tyson warns, before we can even get to the political questions over climate change, vaccines, etc. Whether Americans can still do that has become an unsettlingly open question.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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